Education

An Open Letter to Denise Juneau

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Dear Ms. Juneau:

Congratulations on your recent election. While it was clear to those of us who care about education in Montana that you were by far the best choice for the position, the Montana electorate occasionally shows a troubling lack of judgment or attention in down ticket races. In this case, though, it was evident that the public, after studying you and your opponent, made the right choice. I’m excited to see that someone with your qualifications and demonstrated interest in all of Montana’s schoolchildren will be leading our schools for the next four years.

I’m especially gratified that Montana voters chose you because Montana schools are facing some significant challenges. As you prepare to move into your new role, I hope you’ll consider a few thoughts from one Montana teacher.

Criticism of No Child Left Behind should not obscure the fact that there are some real deficiencies we need to address. While no one at this blog would argue that the punitive, anti-school agenda that drove President Bush’s adoption of No Child Left Behind should be embraced, we must avoid the temptation to dismiss the fact that our schools have demonstrated some real weaknesses in the results from standardized testing. One of the great frustrations I experienced with your predecessor was her willingness to dismiss the results of tests that demonstrated low achievement, while she simultaneously trumpeted the results of tests like the ACT and SAT that demonstrated Montana’s students were doing well.

The truth is more complex, of course. For all the criticisms of “high stakes” testing, the standardized measurements demanded by NCLB have shown that we are failing to educate our students who live in poverty as well as we could be, and that we are doing an outstanding job with our top-performing students. We should embrace the results of both sets of tests, the former to illustrate the areas in which we need work, and the latter as a path by which we might succeed for all students.

I have no doubt that you will be a powerful advocate for Montana’s students, arguing against punitive implementation of federal law and funding, but I hope that you will also be a powerful advocate for the simple idea that we can do better. No matter the flaws of the law, NCLB has illustrated the critical need to better educate all of our students in the critical math and writing literacy they will need in the emerging information economy.

We can do better. Pretending that test results don’t matter because we disagree with the agenda behind them won’t help us do that.

Montana needs to make real progress in developing meaningful content standards. Conservative and liberal critics have noted the real weakness of the Montana Content Standards, a glaring problem that is evident to any teacher who has looked to them for guidelines in the development of curriculum and classroom goals. The state needs to provide much more clear guidance about expectations for our students.

The current standards, in many areas, are vague, repetitive, and unclear. They need to demonstrate a clear sense of academic progression, allowing educators to have a more clear sense of what students need to know.

Specific, clear expectations are critical for teachers, if they hope to reach students. Specific, clear expectations from the state are critical, if the state hopes to reach teachers.

We need to begin looking at school finance in specific terms, not just the number of dollars being spent. It’s not enough to advocate for increased funding for schools, as I am sure you will. OPI needs to lead the way in demanding accountability for the way that funds are spent by local school districts. Parents and taxpayers should have easy access to summaries of budgeting documents, explaining how their district compares to others across the state in terms of expenditures for administration, direct classroom instruction, supplies, and other expenditures. While the OPI web site contains a wealth of information, it is very challenging to make comparisons or see long-term trends in expenditures. A little sunshine on some musty budgets could do a world of good.

We need to ensure that districts are spending as much money as possible on direct classroom instruction. It’s no secret that, in many districts, when cuts are made, central administration is the last line item to face the chopping block. Stakeholders in the educational system deserve to make informed choices about expenditures, and OPI should lead the way in encouraging districts to put as much money as possible into the classrooms, where learning takes place.

We should absolutely fight for additional funding for our schools. The Montana constitution requires adequate funding for an excellent education system. Taxpayers and other stakeholders deserve a full reporting of those expenditures, to ensure that we are making the most of their dollars.

Best of luck in your new position at the Office of Public Instruction. Your historic election, in an historic year, is tremendously exciting to many of us involved in the work of public education. We look forward to seeing what you (and we) can achieve.

Sincerely,

Don Pogreba

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • Denise Juneau will be a great asset to Montana. She really gets how education benefits not just individuals, but society as a whole! I’m glad someone is making the point as well as she does.

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